Are you ready for the Warrior?
Warrior is a standing Yoga posture with many different aspects and modifications that make it a really versatile addition to the Yogin’s toolbox. Its three main variations (simply labelled I, II and III) offer a standing back arch, a hip opener and a one-legged balance posture, that help to work and open out much of the body and challenge the breath.
This strong posture has a strong name, and mimics the fighting stances of the Indian martial art Kalaripayattu. The chosen Sanskrit name for this posture, Virabhadrasana, doesn't directly translate into the English word Warrior, but reveals an even fiercer origin. Virabhadra was in fact no ordinary human soldier, but a wild demon warrior sent by Shiva to avenge the death of his beloved wife Sati. This name suits the tough nature of this posture right down to the ground, even if it doesn't exactly sing Yogic songs of love and light and happiness.
A Posture of Two Parts
Like so many standing postures, Virabhadrasana is very much a posture that has two aspects relating to the way in which we use the lower body to provide support (mula aspect) and the ways that the upper body (especially the spine) can move from that base of support (uddiyana aspect).
In the first two Warriors, both feet are on the mat. We step one foot forward, bend the front knee over the ankle and let the back heel turn in to accomodate the depth of our stance. Whether we take a deep step or a shallow one, the feet should be solidly planted and the legs strong to support our other actions in that position.
In Warrior I, the upper body faces the front and the arms are raised, creating a back arch through the spine. This arch can be gentle or strong, depending on how deep you wish to go, and of course can be practised dynamically (with repetitions) or statically (remaining in position for a number of breaths).
In Warrior II, the upper body is turned to the side, with the arms raised to shoulder height along the same line as the front leg. The front arm is on the same side as the bent knee, and we need to keep an eye on the back arm as it can often droop down towards that back leg without us realising. This posture is more of a hip opener and (leg and arm/shoulder) strength builder than the first Warrior, and is more suited to static work than dynamic.
Warrior III changes the game completely, being a standing asymmetrical leg balance where we end up on one leg with the rest of the body outstretched and parallel to the floor. Traditionally, this posture is entered from Samasthiti (i.e. standing with the feet together and arms by the side), inhaling the arms up, and then exhaling to bend forward with the upper body while one leg leaves the floor to be pointed out directly behind. However I’ve often found it easier for people to access this posture from Warrior I, gradually reaching forward and slowly lifting the back foot from the ground to raise up into position.
Changing the Function
Whichever Warrior you play with, and whatever of the many variations you choose, you can be sure that it will always be a strong experience, known as Brmhana (activating) in Yoga terms. In each of these positions we need to engage the abdominals, making the breath more challenging and necessitating the use of Ujjayi breathing if you intend to stay there. As mentioned we can vary the leg stance (in I and II) to change the effect on the lower body, and we can also bring in changes to the arm position to change the effect on the upper body.
Bringing the arms up to shoulder height to the side eases tension in the neck and shoulders and gives us something between Warrior I and II. There we can turn the palms up or down for different effects, move in-between these two hand positions, or bend at the elbow to point the arms upwards. We can enter a side-bend from Warrior II by lifting the front arm up and lower the back arm down, and might even consider a twisting version by rotating the back arm to the front and vice verse (being duly careful of what’s going on in your spine as you do so).
Add in variations in stay and repetition, breathing patterns, and how you include these postures in a longer sequence, and you’ll soon see that good old Virabhadra offers us a veritable playground for exploring the body in itself.